By Ranga Kalansooriya –
A well-dressed safari jeep driver entered our bungalow before we getting into the jeep. It was still dark as it was in the wee hours of the day and we were ready to take off for a full day safari in the national park. The driver, clad in a dark green uniform gave us a fifteen minute briefing on the ‘code of conduct’ within the park.
“I am happy that all of your dresses are in earth colors. We should avoid sharp and dark colors when entering the park. Please try to avoid flash when you photographing animals. Try not to speak loud and not to make noices….” he went on with a list of dos and don’ts. Don’t forget, he is not the wildlife tracker, he still is the safari jeep driver.
Also please do not get misguided – this was not in Yala or Wilpattu or any-other national parks in Sri Lanka, but this was in Tadoba National Park in Maharashtra, India.
It was a Maruti Suzuki Gypsy type small jeep that runs on gasoline (petrol) which could barely fit six of us of the group. No diesel vehicles are allowed within the park due to air and sound pollution.
Both sides of the jeep carried its wildlife department registration number which is a must for all private safari operators.
“We need to hurry up as we have to join the queue as early as possible. Only a limited number of jeeps are allowed to enter the park,” said the driver and rushed to join the line of entry. We were lucky to be among the firsts in the row.
Then joined the wildlife tracker in a different uniform with a warm greeting but then continued another session of advices to us on dos and donts. “No speeding than 20 kms per hour, no diversion from the designated track, no reversing, no horn, no use of mobile phones within the park, no flash when using cameras……” a long list of nos. “We are entering their territory, so we need to obey their likes and dislikes,” said the tracker.
As there was a complete ban on mobile phones or any other communication equipment, one has to rely on pure luck in spotting an animal. Even if the driver gets a news about an animal movement from a passing-by jeep, he cannot speed up beyond the allowed limits to track the animal.
After a couple of hours we reached a place of retreat with all sanitary facilities. Well cleaned toilets, place to relax and have a cup of tea – a well thoughtful design.
If you have had any experience in Yala or any other national park in Sri Lanka, just compare this situation and see the difference.
No one knows how many safari jeeps are operating within the Yala National Park as there is no system to register them. Thus, there is no regulation whatsoever over the safari operators. The total number of jeeps in the area could be as high as 700 and on busy long weekend days one could find at least 400 to 500 jeeps entering the park per session. A couple of weeks ago some 25 CTB busses entered the park carrying some visitors from North and there were more than 200 safari jeeps on top of that on that particular day as well, said a wildlife official. Imagine the status of the wildlife within the park when you have such massive vehicle traffic congestion – like a highway.
“I have been a safari jeep driver for the past seven years but never have had any kind of orientation or training on my conduct within the wildlife environment,” said a Safari jeep operator in Yala who did not want to be identified. “The only means of information or advice we have are the sign boards and some literature available at the ticket counters. But those printed literature, too, is not available now,” he said.
Whenever there is a sight of an animal, a gold rush by all speeding safari jeeps is a common feature creating heavy traffic congestions within the park. This blame should not go to the safari operators but to the Wildlife Department for not making even a simple effort to regulate the system.
The recent incident within Yala National Park a couple of weeks ago where a rare breed of leopard died raised many concerns at all levels of the society including that of the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who ordered a full scale inquiry into the incident. The blame usually went to Safari jeep drivers but their version is entirely different. According to the autopsy report into the incident has suggested that the accident had occurred at least four hours before recovering the dead body of the animal, said a spokesman of the safari jeep operators association in Yala. The body of the leopard had been cited around 6 am of that particular day and that means the accident might have happened late in the night where no safari jeeps are available within the park. However, the association of wildlife rangers recently announced a cash gift for a tip-off on the culprit.
“Another concern within our national parks is the absence of toilet facilities which is an extremely embarrassing situation,” said the jeep operators association spokesperson. Visitors have to use the “nature toilets” in Patanangala where it is smelly and highly un-hygienic. The department charges a handsome amount as service charge from its visitors but no service at all, he said. Human refuse is not good for the health of animals but the wildlife department has no concern on the well-being of animals rather than collecting entrance fee, he added.
He recalled a comment by a recent foreign visitor after using the ‘jungle toilet.’
“Sri Lanka has the highest literacy rate, but when it comes to hygiene conditions here, you are the lowest. India is thousand times better,” he has said.